Science, Privilege, and the Princess Diaries…

Category: Uncategorized

By Raj Pandya, TEX Director


If you’ve read previous blogs, you know I’ve been thinking a lot about power, equity, and science. For me that means thinking about how being a scientist intersects with privilege – and what you can do with that privilege. I started with a premise, but it quickly became a knot. I’ve been trying to untie the knot, and found a little help in a movie aimed at preteens. Here is that story.

First, the premise: Science is an elite activity.

One sense of elitism is about merit. Merit is the idea that anyone can be a scientist if they do quality work and do it well. It’s the notion that science is about elevating the best ideas based on empirical evidence, without regard for where they come from or who proposed them. I think this kind of elitism is a kind we are pretty comfortable with, and maybe even pretty excited about.

Another sense of elitism, though, is about privilege. This is the idea that some people and their ideas are more likely to be right and maybe are more deserving of success. That part is probably uncomfortable for most of us. It should be.

Here comes the knot: Merit and privilege are messily intertwined. There is a long history of race, gender, and class baggage that is attached to notions of elite, and this baggage blurs the difference between merit and privilege. (Think about any elite institution – Harvard, Eton, etc. If you are like me, you think about rigor, but you also think about wealth.)

In fact, merit and privilege might be even more entangled in science because doing science increasingly relies on money, training, support, time, access, and high-speed internet – all things that are associated with privilege and are still easier to get if you start from a position of privilege or are associated with an institution of privilege. It is still easier to do climate science at a national lab or tier one (i.e., elite) university than at a small public-service university where the teaching load is three courses a semester, let alone at ACMAD, the weather and climate center in central Niger where scientists operate with low-bandwidth internet, intermittent power, and old computers.

This knot of merit and privilege hit home when I was helping to revise a statement about diversity for a scientific society. Some of the committee members were advocating for a statement that emphasized merit – that we welcome anyone good enough, regardless of race, class, gender, etc. That argument evaporated for me when someone said, “We already have mediocre white guys, why should we only allow ‘diverse’ people if they are exceptional?” Ouch. It made feel bad for the white guys who just got called mediocre, it made me wonder if I was one of them (I am white-ish), but most of all it made me see that “merit” is a loaded term.

This knot of merit and privilege is not good for science. It keeps good people out, it keeps science from addressing the concerns and priorities of every community, and it keeps science from being as good as it could be. The baggage of privilege interferes with and gets confused with the meritocracy of ideas that drives science. And that isn’t even the whole story. While science has inherited some of this baggage, I think, if we are perfectly honest with ourselves, we’ve contributed some, too.

So, what do you do with this unearned privilege? You can feel bad. You can be proud of yourself for being woke. I’ve done both. But you know what helped me get beyond those reactions? Watching the Princess Diaries with my (then) 7-year-old daughter. There is a scene where the main character has second thoughts about her newly-discovered royalty and talks to her friend about opting out. After all, she didn’t do anything to deserve to be a princess. Her friend says something like, “Are you crazy, think of all the good you could do if you were a princess!” In other words, you might have unearned privilege, and that’s not fair, but it’s what you do with that privileged that matters.

Community science is about what you do with the privilege of being a scientist.

mgoodwin editor